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No other business offers a man his daily bread upon such joyful terms.
August 1, 2013 10:37 AM   Subscribe

It is doubtless tempting to exclaim against the ignorant bourgeois; yet it should not be forgotten, it is he who is to pay us, and that (surely on the face of it) for services that he shall desire to have performed. Here also, if properly considered, there is a question of transcendental honesty. To give the public what they do not want, and yet expect to be supported: we have there a strange pretension, and yet not uncommon, above all with painters. The first duty in this world is for a man to pay his way; when that is quite accomplished, he may plunge into what eccentricity he likes; but emphatically not till then. Till then, he must pay assiduous court to the bourgeois who carries the purse. Robert Louis Stevenson on art as a career.
posted by shivohum (20 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
I needed that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:56 AM on August 1, 2013


Interesting to read this again. I had seen it many years ago - before entering this field myself - but reading it now, with decades of experience behind me, I found myself nodding all the way through, "This guy understands the core issues here ..."

I suspect though, that there is a kind of paradox here; the presumed 'target' of this sort of piece - the young person considering a career in the field - probably isn't capable of really digesting the arguments.

But that's life in general, isn't it ... by the time we get it all figured out, it's nearly over!
posted by woodblock100 at 11:15 AM on August 1, 2013


In general, R.L. Stevenson's essays are well worth reading. He was more than just a writer of adventure tales. Gutenberg has a nice selection -- I'm particularly fond of this one:

Essays In The Art Of Writing
posted by Agave at 11:16 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


"…he must pay assiduous court to the bourgeois who carries the purse."

It's tough for me to get on board with this—even though my gut tells me that it's probably true. We are cursed to "work," I suppose. But wasn't Stevenson a bit of a bohemian in his time?
posted by toots at 11:19 AM on August 1, 2013


toots, I'd argue that this was probably quite the reality of his time but it could be generalized nowadays to "make what a reasonable number of people want to buy".
posted by dobie at 11:23 AM on August 1, 2013


We are cursed to "work," I suppose

I think the bottom line here is that as we (inevitably) 'consume' things - food, clothing, shelter at the least - we must of necessity also be part of the production side of the equation. Stuff has to come from somewhere ...
posted by woodblock100 at 11:30 AM on August 1, 2013


"paying your way" does not necessarily require catering to public demands, though. Make your living with thing A and produce B art.
posted by DU at 11:31 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's interesting to me that, in our time, "catering to public demands" seems to be getting easier. Maybe this is because we each have the power to define a unique "public." For example, I have some friends who recently completed an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $5,000 toward recording an album—and they only had 41 people contribute! It just baffles me that one can have such a tiny "public," but receive so much positive reinforcement to do one's work.
posted by toots at 11:41 AM on August 1, 2013


"paying your way" does not necessarily require catering to public demands, though. Make your living with thing A and produce B art.

I think RLS acknowledges that point:
The first duty in this world is for a man to pay his way; when that is quite accomplished, he may plunge into what eccentricity he likes; but emphatically not till then. Till then, he must pay assiduous court to the bourgeois who carries the purse. And if in the course of these capitulations he shall falsify his talent, it can never have been a strong one, and he will have preserved a better thing than talent - character. Or if he be of a mind so independent that he cannot stoop to this necessity, one course is yet open: he can desist from art, and follow some more manly way of life.
You have to "pay your way" in life is RLS's point. If you plan to do it with your art, then you have to find some sort of market for that art. If you do it some other way, then you're free to pursue as eccentric an artistic career as you wish; just as, if you make enough with your art to no longer need pay any attention to 'what the market wants' you can also do whatever you like. But one way or another you need to "pay your way."
posted by yoink at 11:42 AM on August 1, 2013


I think the following sentences of your quote indicate that RLS is saying you have to produce art the way the public wants it to make that living. My point is that you do not. You can leave your art 100% unadulterated (except for the fact you aren't working on it full time) if you, say, live off forest berries. Or have a day job.
posted by DU at 11:57 AM on August 1, 2013


DU, RLS is responding directly to someone talking about pursuing the profession of artist. He isn't saying that art is the sole domain of the professional artist, and if he thinks that we wouldn't know from this piece because he doesn't address the topic. What he's speaking against is the idea that you can just make whatever art you care to make without regard to pleasing the people who will pay for it. If a person is unwilling to make art on those terms, he suggests they do as you say and pay their way some other way.
posted by NathanBoy at 12:06 PM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


he will have preserved a better thing than talent - character. Or if he be of a mind so independent that he cannot stoop to this necessity, one course is yet open: he can desist from art, and follow some more manly way of life.

Or you could just get born into money. It's only poor people who are required to demonstrate their Usefulness To Society, usually while listening to snide remarks about their character and/or manliness.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 12:26 PM on August 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Pure mathematics (which to me is an art) actually isn't covered in RLS's essay because there is nothing for the general public to consume. This suggests to me that there is another category of artist, the artist who is supported by public money assigned by his peers (academia!)
posted by zscore at 1:30 PM on August 1, 2013


I think the following sentences of your quote indicate that RLS is saying you have to produce art the way the public wants it to make that living. My point is that you do not. You can leave your art 100% unadulterated (except for the fact you aren't working on it full time) if you, say, live off forest berries. Or have a day job.

That is exactly what we're saying that Stevenson is saying. That you have to pay your way no matter what, and that it does not necessarily have to be paid with revenue gained from art.

...I've been in a real downswing for the past few years artistically, for a lot of reasons - the biggest of which is that for the past few years, as a friend once said, "my life went nuts". But another part of it was the psychic wedgie you get when you want to do something creative but don't have the skill or the talent or the luck or the vision to live solely off it, and you haven't yet figured out how to square the "I need time to devote to the craft but I also need time for the day job dammit" circle.

But the one good thing about today is, we are much, much more able to come up with a free or cheap outlet for our work today than in Stevenson's time. In his day, the people who didn't have a publisher or sponsor would write things and...hope to show them to someone, someday, at a handful of print outlets, and if your work didn't appeal to them, too bad, it went into a drawer. Today, there are scores of little literary magazines - and even more web-based ones. And if you still can't find an outlet? There's always making a free blog and putting it up there. Or if you have a little extra cash, there's the kindle single route.

And the blog form is what I'm looking into now - it seems so suited for an epistolary novel style, doesn't it?...and the fact that I'm even having these thoughts is all because I am setting aside the "you must be paid for your work" notion right now and getting back to the joy of it.

At last.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:48 PM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Very much worth reading, as RLS always is. There's one unfortunate typo in this version:
Some day, when the butcher is knocking at the door, he may be tempted, he may be obliged, to turn out and sell a slovenly piece of work. If the obligation shall have arisen through no wantonness of his own, he is even to be commanded; for words cannot describe how far more necessary it is that a man should support his family, than that he should attain to - or preserve - distinction in the arts.
The word I have bolded should, of course, be "commended." (And his point, of course, is commendable, however much the young would-be artist may jib at it.)
posted by languagehat at 5:09 PM on August 1, 2013


I liked the part where he spoke about prostitutes, or "Daughters of Joy," and says that the artist works in the same domain, their job being to provide pleasure to others and themselves. I've thought about this myself, as someone in school to become a graphic designer. I meet people who study to work in healthcare, engineering, science, all fields I respect (unlike say, business... I have very little inherent respect for business majors unless they demonstrate otherwise), fields which have the ability to make life better for others and make a real difference in the world. Sometimes my choice to pursue the arts can seem a bit frivolous. While I know how important a great book or beautiful painting can seem to me personally, sometimes it feels almost irresponsible to spend the bulk of a day working on a painting when there are people starving in the world.

But I dunno, it's just a passing thought. I can't see myself doing anything else, really.
posted by malapropist at 7:34 PM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Today, there are scores of little literary magazines - and even more web-based ones. And if you still can't find an outlet? There's always making a free blog and putting it up there. Or if you have a little extra cash, there's the kindle single route.

Yes, this is always an interesting option, particularly if you're not looking to make money off your work. But what about getting an audience? It seems increasingly difficult to get any substantial audience using these small press / self-publishing options -- exactly as it becomes easier and easier to use them, and as their numbers explode.

So RLS's injunction to delight and please the public might still be necessary to get not just money. but readers. But maybe readers don't matter anymore. Maybe, if money isn't an issue, then you do art because it pleases you, and if anyone else happens to find and appreciate it, great. And if not, that's great too.

On the other hand, the desire to delight is also a kind of anchor or reference, a way to strive towards something relatively objective and get some hard feedback from the world: people read and enjoyed it, or they didn't.
posted by shivohum at 9:09 PM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, this is always an interesting option, particularly if you're not looking to make money off your work. But what about getting an audience? It seems increasingly difficult to get any substantial audience using these small press / self-publishing options -- exactly as it becomes easier and easier to use them, and as their numbers explode.

Well, here's the thing:

If you choose to publish your work "either in The New Yorker or not at all", then maybe you get really lucky and they take your work - but most likely they don't, and you end up with an audience of zero. But if you choose to also consider a blog or a small literary magazine, and one of them takes it - even if you only have 50 people read it, that's still an audience of fifty.

And fifty is more than zero.

Also, the bigger presses are more inclined to take your next thing if you can mention "and another work I did was just recently published in...."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:21 PM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Creating any sort of content isn't about being heard—it's about putting out what you need to because the weight of keeping it in is too much.

Who am I kidding. It's about the audience the money me.
posted by toots at 11:05 AM on August 2, 2013


toots: It's tough for me to get on board with this—even though my gut tells me that it's probably true. We are cursed to "work," I suppose. But wasn't Stevenson a bit of a bohemian in his time?
Maybe, if you define what you mean by "bohemian"... but he certainly had a mind for selling commercially viable work to pay his way.

Tiny Tim and the loudest bongo player at Occupy Wall Street were both "bohemian", but only one of them charted on the Top 40 (I presume).
posted by IAmBroom at 12:10 PM on August 6, 2013


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